(Digital Collections) On the Impermanence of a Waco Snow

It snowed in Waco on Wednesday morning. Don’t believe me? Check social media – almost everyone in the 254 area code posted something about it. This Vine from colleague David Taylor provides a nice summation:

It made for a pretty display, but by noon, the sun was coming out and the snowfall had either melted into the ground or evaporated into the Central Texas sky.

The whole thing put me in a mind to think about the question of permanence: not just in the collections we create or in the social media we utilize to promote them, but in the scattershot approach some take when they choose to create them in the first place.

What makes a good digital collection? Is it comprised of the rarest materials? Those most requested by researchers? The largest holdings? The ones we think will get us the most attention from funding sources and influential agencies? Frequently, the answer is, E.) All of the Above. We choose to create digital collections from the source material that resonates with the most people, strikes the deepest chord, furthers the most research; and sometimes, we hit a rare sweet spot and see our efforts enshrined in an institution tasked with the protection of our nation’s most important cultural treasures.

But for every Smithsonian-bound collection we create, there are others whose importance may be less nationally important, less grandly proportioned and even less fully understood. Are they any less important to create and maintain? I suppose that depends on whom you ask. Does a collection of posters swept up from the bloodstained streets of Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom have less impact because it only contains eight items? Does a collection of tens of thousands of JFK assassination-related documents carry more weight simply because it’s so large?

Making everything more complicated is the question of long-term access to digital assets. Every collection we create is like adding another child to an already bustling family, an obligation we take on to feed, clothe and care for those digital surrogates “forever and ever, amen.” Sure, storage is cheap and bandwidth around these parts is speedy, but we’ve grown to such a size now (almost 70 publicly accessible collections to date) that it means taking a good, long look at every candidate for digitization before we commit to adding them to our “family.”

So, back to our central question: how do we decide what makes the list? We rely heavily on the expertise and judgment of our special collections colleagues, of course; after all, they are the professionals tasked with preserving and providing access to the physical versions of the digital collections we create, so they would be the place to start. But we also take other voices into account, like the needs of undergraduate students, graduate students, scholars around the world and the occasional request for help found in the local media.

The whole goal, of course, is to create a permanently accessible digital asset for use by anyone with access to the Internet. We’ve certainly done that, to the tune of 250,000+ unique items placed online via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections. And we have no plans to stop, either. So long as there’s a collection we all agree will benefit the greater web, we’ll be here to scan it and reserve its URL. But we’ve progressed from the “scan it if it’s not nailed down” approach of our wilder, younger years into a reasoned, methodical approach based on the likelihood of a collection’s interest to the world, a focus on categorically unique items and creating curated sets of items based on item type, not collection scope. To extend the familial metaphor, we’ve traded our modest starter home for a well-appointed house in the thriving part of town: solid, inviting and built to last.

So if you’ll continue to indulge us as we place ever-larger numbers of 1’s and 0’s into the greater Internet, we’ll keep on doing so, with an aim to provide greater access to Baylor’s unique archival heritage well into our staff’s collective sunset years.

And unlike the refreshing novelty of this week’s snowfall, we have every reason to believe that the impact of what we do won’t be forgotten when the wind changes.

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